Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Because I Know I Shall Not Know

This morning the mosquitoes are particularly ravenous. Red welts rise on my ankles as the puppies survey the perimeter of our property and the cicadas again greet the morning sun that ascends into a deep blue sky.

The day has only just begun. A cool breeze shakes the potted dahlias, seared brown by summer sun. Birds, in the distance, belt out tied notes over the churn of a lawn mower in a distant neighbor's yard. Today is a day of a promise, a day of fulfilling promises made. There is writing, marketing, and web design before me, yet I cannot help but look backwards into the brief sleep that my dogs, as ever, cut short.


Last Sunday, while driving back from the Kroger where I often procure coffee, someone with a sonorous voice read snippets from Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." I started my day with the poem, wondering at the way Eliot's rhythms, folding and unfolding upon itself like a verse from Genesis hold together the most abstract of ideas. While reading the poem, I caught myself contemplating whether or not I'd accept such a poem as an editor. And, truth be told, I seriously doubt it. There is too much abstraction, too much of Eliot's near hopeless reaching. Perhaps, I might even have accepted part II, where the wonderful imagery of the juniper tree first emerges while shying away from the rest of the poem with its abstraction and mild form of proselytization.

Of course, this is all idle speculation, but let's not shy away from idle speculation just yet.


To me, one of the most useful experiences for my development as a writer was reading the annotated drafts of Eliot's "The Wasteland". You can, of course, see the development of the poem and how a morass of disparate thoughts came together as one of the most powerful—if difficult—poems in the English language. Seeing the work of such a poet in manuscript form—covered with corrections—can do wonders for a young poet. You have a chance to see the process of writing at work, to witness the fact that poems do not tumble from the heavens, like manna, fully formed as works of art. You can see the give in take of the poet's intelligence and witness the profound impact that both Pound and Vivian Eliot had on his work.

For me, whenever I think of those myriad corrections, I'm always drawn to a comment made by Pound. "Damn Perhaps-y" he wrote while crossing out one of the many instances of the word that began a line in "The Wasteland." Eliot, of course, used that correction.

Sometimes, I wonder whether or not those two monsters of modernism made a mistake there. I do not doubt that my thinking is skewed by living 80 years after the fact of that poem's composition, but it seems to me, that, so often, we must dwell in the space signified by that word: "perhaps". I wonder what might have happened if Eliot had left us that space—let us dwell for the briefest of moments in uncertainty.


In graduate school, I suppose I cultivated a deep affinity for the modernists. Even now, when I list my favorite poets, only a handful of English-language poets who were not of that era bear mentioning: Plath, Schuyler, Ashbery, Simic, Rexroth, Dickinson, Coleridge, Blake, Hopkins, and Shakespeare. Of course, there are other poets who have meant (and still mean) a great deal to me, but if pressed, I could survive on a desert island with just those ten poets. Still, if given a choice, I'd rather have a suitcase full of modernist classics: Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, HD, and Hart Crane.

Yet, despite the profound influence of those modernists on how I approach a poem, my poetry remains oddly postmodern. Occasionally, a poem might be invested with ambition like that found in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," but I've yet to write a long poem that truly pleases me. More, there was always, that overvaluation of self that's difficult to escape in your youth—even if I imagined that "I" as a Prufrock-like character.


In both college and graduate school, I used to joke that my first book would be the best first-book since Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Now, of course, I doubt this. Nevertheless, in graduate school, that was the aim I worked toward—often finding myself overwhelmed by my own ambition.

I remember thinking how difficult writing poetry suddenly seemed—one had to be conversant in philosophy, religion, psychology, and the long-and-storied traditions of verse in the English language. Now, I suppose this is true, up to a point, but focusing on syllogisms or re-reading Kierkegaard misses the point ever so slightly, doesn't it?


Poetry, I suppose, is much simpler than that. All great poets, regardless of whether or not they've read Derrida, make memorable lines that others will long to read. They craft language to share something—often something outside of their reader's realm of understanding.

If you read, "Ash Wednesday," I suspect you will be moved—even if you are not an Anglican, like Eliot. Even if you're not a Christian, like Eliot. Even if you've never uttered the Lord's Prayer. And it is not the religion that moves us. And it is not the intellect behind those thoughts. And it is not the symbolism of Mary's colors.


Outside, the sun has dissolved the last of the clouds. Archie, our Italian Greyhound, is sleeping soundly on the sofa behind me. Dixie, our other terrier, barks into the distance, protecting the perimeter of her home. The day goes on. Everywhere there is poetry.


Anonymous Karen said...

Hi, thanks for the treat of another post, I like some of your phrases, like your comment that the day is full of promise in the sense of fulfilling promises made - that's a way I never thought of the phrase, the obligation side of being full of promise. I had previously thought of the feeling of promise as only excited anticipation, obligation-free! Makes me approach my day differently -- hopefully!

I was wondering what more exactly you meant by "postmodern", how you would define it and which poets most represent it to you - maybe a subject for another post?

At firt, only because I'm writing a book on racism, I thought the post was coming across as Eurocentric but then the end part changed that perception.

Truly, poetry is everywhere, you're right.

-- and as you imply at the end, can be written without knowing a whit of Joyce or whoever or any western poets or philosophy or thought -- obviously, many African poets or Asian poets of the past did just that, though many are conversant in the whole tradition of western thought and literature moreso now.

Have you had a chance to read any Asian or African poetry or translations? I haven't much, to be honest, but am starting to because of my delving into the racism/ethnicism/ etc. theme, but I still need to become ever deeply more conversant in our own western thought and great thinkers and traditions - a lifelong process.

thanks, karen

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

"Poetry is much simpler than that" and "Poetry is everywhere" - that's what I agreed with in your post, sorry if I got off track on Eurocentrism etc.

I think acknowledging that the impetus to write poetry is just in everything around us -- as you said, poetry is everywhere -- and being in us, as a primal drive to express self - is not to deny that being conversant in as varied a knowledge base as possible will broaden one's writing possibilities.

I think you were making both those points. sorry if I got off track in my comment, k

6:22 PM  
Blogger Les said...


No need to apologize....I haven't responded because I've been busy and slightly under the weather.

I have some thoughts about eurocentrism...which I'll share a little later tonight or tomorrow.

But, before I do, take a look at those lists of poets.....if you didn't know their race, their gender, their sexuality, would you still read them?

I would.....

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Hmmm! :) Well, to start to answer without knowing where your question is going exactly, I'd read them but at this point in my life I wouldn't read them ahead of other world poetry.

I'd read them for what you're defining as the (partly indefinable?) essence of good writing; in this post you define that by saying what it is NOT, in the wrting that moves us -- it is not 'the intellect behind the thoughts', etc.

Yeah, I wouldn't want to miss some of my favorites, for example Adrienne Rich even if I saw in her writing that she was a lesbian and if I were anti-gay (I'm not!).

I wouldn't want to miss Thomas Hardy even if I perceived his being English etc. after starting to read his poetry and if I were anti-WASP male (I'm not!), I wouldn't want to miss what he crafted.

I'm sad though that I inevitably have to somewhat miss poets in other languages to the extent that parts of the poems are lost in even the best translation - rhyme etc.

And I'm sorry I have to miss those that are not translated at all into English.

Or that I have to miss even those whose poetry isn't even composed in written language.

I guess that sounds greedy and insatiable or like I'm dividing poetry into nationalities unnecessarily?, but I want to experience all world poets in the context of their culture, even though I haven't scratched the surface of the English poets.

But I'm not quite sure what point you're making by asking -- are you saying that choosing to read a poet because he's African for example, and because I want to not be Eurocentric, is not choosing to read him for the right reason, and is in effect being ... what? Afrocentric? Arbitrarily chossing by nationality and not by that indefinable essence of good poetry?

I probably am not getting what you mean by the question after all my ramlbing :)

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

p.s. I hope you're feeling better, being under the weather is not fun. Also you are a response-angel; not all bloggers respond to each comment left on their blog, you're great because you do -- don't feel you have to with mine- though of course I love getting the mental exchange.

You're a deeply analytical person, it's stimulating to find people of detailed verbal reasoning in life/in virtual life, and especially if they're putting that ability to thoughts on writing. I initially was interested in your blog because you brought back memories of Cincinnati, but your mind has made me stay. My best friend Nancy lives in Cincinnati, we've been friends since age 19 in Sidall Hall at UC.

She's one of the most thought-ful articulate persons I know, though her thinking used to keep me up all night as it was always expressed verbally and past midnight! But one of my good memories of Cincinnati :)

6:28 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Hi brooding poet, hoping you're okay. Figure you're writing on your novel, experiencing the end of summer, traveling, all of the above, more. (Or still under the weather - hopefully not!)

Your thoughts when you go longer stretches between new blog entries are noticed in their absence among other blog reading because your blog is a treat for other writers.

I introduced your blog to another friend who is interested. I'm feeling the slight premonitions of fall in hilly beautiful Cincinnati in my mind's eye as when I was living there, I still remember the way the air smelled in September, slightly different than here...

... thanks always for being the spur that caused me to discover Birches and a whole new way of feeling about Frost, funny to have a blogger do that for me two decades after getting my English degree.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

(oops gulp - closer to 3 decades after, but who's counting)

4:23 AM  
Blogger Les said...

Actually, I've been working on this:

Ward 6 Review

and enjoying the presence of family visitors.

More soon, perhaps later today.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been slowly browsing 'Ward 6'. It's funny to feel so at home in a lit zine named after a mental ward :) (Wouldn't every poet?)

Just read Bettie and Gertie. I really really liked it. I loved the contrast of Bettie's desperation to sell, with Gertie; the last line really sealed that.

But I was thinking how the last line's interest struck me on the first reading; but the last line's punch and power got to me viscerally and struck me in the gut only on the second reading.

What is this about first readings that is so blind... why do I seem to miss so much on first readings? And presumably other people have that phenomenon to greater or lesser degrees?

And the shadow of the man with his hand to his head on the 'cover' of the mag... I didn't honestly notice him at first.

I noticed the DNA-like strands design there, yet didn't even notice the man till the second view.

I'm somewhat blind visually and conceptually till second views, when sight starts to come as if I've had cataract removal.

I think this relates to one of your first posts about how to draw a reader in enough on first reading to come back. That struck me and I keep meandering into that topic in my mind when I come here. Bettie and Gertie drew me in enough to go back for another reading, definitely.

I didn't see anywhere on the mag to send in comments, letters, etc.

Great first issue! Congrats!

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

this site sometimes posts me as 'anonymous' even when I type in Karen.

5:43 AM  
Anonymous Gary Charles Wilkens said...

Hi Les, interesting blog :) Thank you very much anonymous, for your kind words. I try.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Hey cool, the link to your web page is appreciated.

I'm 'Karen', by the way -- got posted as 'anonymous' by mistake.

The Godot line resonated with about five additional nuances and interpretations for me later. Is that the power of a great line?

I think the thinking about writing on this blog grabs me because it's the personal and the theoretical combined.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I really miss your blog -- are you coming back?

sorry to be a pest, just missing your thoughts and your writing about writing...


6:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home